Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:20 November 2020
It’s a striking opening line to the first song on your first album: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand”. Searching, yearning for direction, for counsel. The song is called “Disorder”, a one-word summary of the singer’s internal state. There is a plea for human contact: take my hand. Please. Welcome to the dark electro pop of Joy Division. Welcome to their first album, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures.
Singer Ian Curtis offers a greeting floating on chill breath; not so much “welcome to my nightmare" as “enter my prison”. The refrain of the second song, “Day of the Lords” asks “where will it all end”; asks four times; asks repeatedly, insistently, desperately. With a spare sonic attack, Joy Division were both post-punk progressives and synth-pop disrupters. In the fragile, desperate voice of Ian Curtis the band (comprising guitarist/keyboard player Bernard Sumner, bass player Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris) had an anti-frontman, a child-man suffering from mental anguish and physical illness; his epilepsy made live performance an incredible challenge. A lonely outsider, Curtis was a mesmerising, doomed focus for Joy Division’s music. And the music is equally intense; sparse yet penetrating, with deft use of synthesisers adding tonal colour to the monochrome canvas.
Unknown Pleasures is an album that flows with a consistent mood of introspection. Mostly anguished rather than raging, it broods and sometimes buffets. Sumner’s guitars are edgy and abstract while the percussion foundation is both of its time, and timeless. “She’s lost control” has an insistent, echoing disco beat that is eminently danceable, leavened by avant-garde guitar squalls. These combine with a lyric exploring the terror of life as an epileptic. The song was released as a 12” single; quite a paradox. By comparison, “Shadowplay” is a powerful, relatively straight-ahead rocker with guitar breaks and some neat synth spikes, like a late-70s Manchester version of The Doors “LA Woman”. The LP ends with the downbeat “I remember nothing” where the isolation is palpable. Glass shatters, bass notes fall like droplets into a silent pool; a fitting album closer.
The Greeks believed theatrical presentations of tragedy—loss, suffering, death, anguish—could cleanse an audience. That via the storm of controlled emotion on stage, humans could be released from their suffering. They had a word for it, κᾰ́θᾰρσῐς. Cartharsis. Ian Curtis, heartbreakingly, was not purged of his inner darkness by music. But in Unknown Pleasures we have a powerful and affecting album offering us the chance to do what he was unable to: let the potency of the music unknot our own heartache and rinse out the stains. That is a gift that can connect us, both to ourselves and to others.
© Bruce Jenkins 2020